Saturday, August 29, 2015

Perfect students don't need teachers

This is a teaching post. And kind of a long one.

My new partner teacher and I started using interactive notebooks this year. It's the anti-technology for math. Our whole school and whole world moving to an online learning environment and here we are with scissors and glue.

We teach lessons and create foldables and study aids for kids to cut out and glue in their notebooks. Like this (this isn't one of mine directly, but from Math = Love. I used this one this past week):
Those little doors close and you have each of the operations on the outside. It allows for a different sort of organized thinking. More spatial, more visual.

I teach tracked math classes (you are either average or advanced, there's no remedial). Except for a few boys who thought cutting and pasting was "hard" (I teach 6th-8th, remember), the reaction to the notebook system has been overwhelmingly positive.

The most positive reactions? Reasonably smart girls who are nervous about math. The group I have the hardest time reaching in a classroom setting, but my favorite group to tutor. And I decided to move to this system last year when, sitting in my algebra class with printouts and cut-and-paste work about radicals, a couple of my really bright boys said, "These are the best notes we've taken all year, I really get this stuff right now." So I knew that it wasn't just for kids who struggled. It is clear, it is personalized, and it's more fun than copying stuff I scribble on the board in a hurry.

On the test this past Friday, the last question was an evaluation of my teaching: what is working in math this year? What isn't? What are you worried about? How can I help? Of course this sort of question leads to lots of positive comments (some of them dishonestly so), but I did get comments like "I don't understand word problems" and "You talk too fast". Ok. I can dig it. I will work on that.

But one of my algebra students (advanced 8th grade) ripped me apart about the notebooks. He hates them. He doesn't need them. He resents that math has become this arts and crafts lesson and he doesn't see any value in it. He urged me to give it up and be a normal teacher. He was not nice in his urging. I would call him brave, except...

This child's father called out a teacher at our open house this week in front of a classroom full of parents. She was explaining the new math series and how it focuses on problem solving. She brought up an example on her smart board that showed how to determine if an answer is reasonable. He shouted out, "It's not REASONABLE. It's RIGHT. Who cares if it's reasonable?"

I was once at a classroom party with this student's mother, at which she got a little tipsy (no, not really, I'm just kidding, there was no alcohol) and started making fun of homeless people. In front of me, the other moms, and some kids who overheard.

She was the only parent who was disappointed when we stopped having math groups in 6th grade (we have since gone back to them, unfortunately), because her younger son was so looking forward to math on "his level" without the other kids dragging it down all the time.

The arrogance is doing me in.

So I wrote back to this child on his test. You certainly don't have to take notes this way if you don't find it helpful. That's what I wrote. This is what I thought, but did not write:

Everyone else will get an easy 15 point notebook check grade and you will get "NA", meaning it doesn't count for or against you (if you don't have your notebook on that day, you get "NA" as well).

And if there is any justice in the world, eventually something will be hard and you will come up to my desk and ask for help and I'll ask you to bring me your notebook.

But most likely, you will make an A+ in my class because you are gifted and hard working and don't need me. And that'll be good too. Because you are already angry at the whole damned world at 14. I'm glad math is easy. But I'm still going to teach everyone else this way. Sorry that I moved 8 more students up into your elitist advanced class and therefore we move a little more slowly for the good of those who don't have your giftedness, abilities, and advantages but can certainly learn algebra in eighth grade if I guide them.

If you want to be separate from them, I suggest you find a school you have to test into. Or a homeschool program so your mom doesn't have to worry about the word "Common Core" showing up on the front of a textbook. Or, God forbid, rubbing shoulders with someone a little less perfect.

Funny thing is, after I watched the soccer game the other night, and then after curriculum night was over and the whole staff gathered for a little happy hour, I started wondering if I was selling this place short. And then this happened and I remembered, no, I'm not.

I know there are difficult families everywhere. I know that there are asshole students everywhere. I think it comes down to the BRAND of difficult here. The assumptions and the arrogance. I'm tired of square peg/round hole-ing myself for the few families who like me. Because I won't be an elitist. I won't celebrate advantage. I won't make fun of homeless people with you.

I'm in the wrong place.

I know--just one kid, Sally, don't let it bring you down. I know--it's a job, Sally, that's why they have to pay you to do it. But you know what? I've had jobs that I didn't feel like I had to change who I was in order to teach there.


  1. Sometimes the small problem is more emblematic of the system than we want to think. And that goes both ways. Sometimes the way the individual is treated shows how broken the system, not the individual, is broken. And how the system is breaking the individual.

    But I read this and wonder if this is how my son's teachers have read me?

    1. I can't speak for them of course...but I would like to believe I'm not afraid to adapt and change what I'm doing to meet student needs. I've had meetings with parents who were very angry or upset, and we have, thus far, always left on good terms with a plan. Many students require individualized instruction and I have no problem with that. The problem I have is the assumption of moral superiority based upon the idea that someone is smart and upper middle class. I am always happy to push a student forward or to have him or her work independently. But the assumption that others should be excluded from instruction due to the fact that you are smarter is wrong. If you don't shout out at public meetings at first year teachers, if you don't make fun of poor people, if you don't assume that smart > nice, then I would think teachers wouldn't read you that way. I could be wrong. Many of us are guilty of cynicism, exhaustion, and low pay. And we have egos that get bruised.

  2. I don't have anything to add except that I feel very sorry for a 14 year old who is angry at everyone.

  3. He is wound so tight. He hates when anyone else achieves, especially anyone who also goofs off, ever. As if there's only so many A's to go around.